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Part two.  For part one, click here.  Or read the whole series in the Essays section.

3.  “Non-Christian” music is an accurate cultural barometer. 

Jon Acuff, the author of Stuff Christians Like and Quitter, tweeted insightfully about the recent MTV Video Music Awards, “Just watched an alter ego accept a VMA for a video about being yourself.”  That tweet goes beyond sarcasm; it is an incisive, albeit brief, glimpse at our cultural moment.  Lady Gaga’s music testifies to the genetic fatalism that’s gaining traction in our intellectual context.  The tautological expression “you are who you are” has given credence to the moral motto of our day “be true to yourself.”  Yet, our culture repeatedly invents new ways of being something other than ourselves–whether through an anonymous online profile or a Gaga-esque masquerade.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul makes use of similar cultural barometers in his ministry.  In Acts 17, Paul preaches before a sophisticated intellectual crowd in Athens.  In verse 28, he quotes from Greek poet Aratus (circa 3rd century BC).  The cited text–“For we are indeed his offspring”–gives Paul evidence for his claim that the Athenians are religious and, in fact, share his creation-oriented worldview.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, whom he left in Crete to minister, he quotes the humorous aphorism, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”  This quotation, from the philosopher and poet Epimenides (circa 6th century BC), provides the basis for Paul’s command to Titus, “Therefore, rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in faith.”

Paul found in “non-Christian” poetry instructive material for evangelism and Christian discipleship.  Our culture is, regrettably, post-poetic, and popular music is one of our remaining poetic vestiges.  We, too, if we carefully examine the Billboard charts, will find cultural material to aid us in our mission.

4.  “Non-Christian” music often provides an illustrative foil to Christian belief and practice.

From time-to-time, I find “non-Christian” music to touch on Christian issues meaningfully and, thus, provide illustrations for our belief and practice.  The country duo Brooks and Dunn, for instance, gives us two ways of approaching suffering in their songs “God Must Be Busy” and “Believe.”

Released in 2005, “Believe” fared well commercially and reached as high as #8 on the US Country charts.  The song portrays Christian faith as persistent through sorrow.  A character in the song, “Old man Wrigley” experiences the loss of his wife and son, and he comforts himself with scripture and the hope of everlasting life:

“I raise my hands, bow my head
I’m finding more and more truth in the words written in red
They tell me that there’s more to life that just what I can see
Oh, I believe”

Two short years later, Brooks and Dunn released “God Must Be Busy,” which reached #11 on the U.S. Country charts.  This song presents a contrasting view of suffering than the one found in “Believe.”  A list of moral and natural evils–including Middle East turmoil, natural disasters, and child abduction–evokes this response from the song’s speaker:

“And I know in the big picture
I’m just a speck of sand
and God’s got better things to do
than look out for one man.
I know he’s heard my prayers
cause he hears everything.
He just ain’t answered back
or he’d bring you back to me.
God must be busy.”

A classic philosophical objection to the Christian concept of God is the problem of evil.  One way of formulating this objection forces Christians into a dilemma.  Given the immense scope of suffering in the world, God must be limited in either his ability or his desire to curtail suffering.  The problem of evil would have us sacrifice our views on God’s omnipotence or his benevolence.  Brooks and Dunn’s “God Must Be Busy” dangerously treads on questioning God’s omnipotence.  Though the scope of suffering seems incalculable to us, God is lovingly, powerfully, and wisely working all things in accordance with his will.

So, we find in two Brooks and Dunn songs material illustrative for our conception of suffering.  We can endure in belief through suffering, as the character in “Believe,” or we could question God’s character, as in “God Must Be Busy.”

Should all Christians listen to secular music?

The reasons outlined above lead me to a more inclusive view of non-Christian music.  I argue, now, that non-Christian music is permissible and, under the right conditions, helpful.  Yet, I do not argue for a carte blanche freedom of consumption for all Christians.

Recall my earlier emphasis on moral discernment.  As Christians, we must know our tendencies toward transgressions.  Some may find in non-Christian music a gateway to sinful actions, speech, and thoughts.  Know your own heart well enough to rid yourself of that which would enslave you.

Furthermore, some instances of non-Christian music are gratuitously sinful.  When I was younger, I identified non-Christian hip-hop as a generally wicked genre of music.  Rap seemed obsessed with an affection for lewd language, the objectification of women, and the glorification of violence.  As I have matured, I have duly noted the prevalence of these preoccupations in other forms of music–for instance, the objectification of women, though subtler, is a common theme in country music.  We need to embrace our repulsive instincts; offended feelings, at times, are the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification.

I also see the practical benefits of guardedly exposing children to non-Christian music.  So many of the thematic trends of non-Christian music are developmentally inappropriate for children.

Corrie Tin Boom’s autobiography, The Hiding Place, is a heroic tale of the Tin Booms’ civil disobedience to Nazi authorities’ persecution of Jews.  My favorite character of the book is Corrie’s father.  Mr. Tin Boom is an absent-minded and eccentric watch maker and repairman, who seems to care little about turning a profit.  He also was a devout Christian father, who exuded wisdom in leading his family.

When Corrie was a young child, she overheard an adult conversation that referenced “sex sin.”  On a trip with her father, she brought up this conversation and wanted to know what precisely this “sex sin” is.  Mr. Tin Boom led his daughter through a helpful learning exercise.  He placed before her a large, heavy suitcase and asked her to lift it.  Though she tried, Corrie could hardly nudge the suitcase.  Mr. Tin Boom explained that he would never ask Corrie to carry this suitcase for him; she was not able to bear its weight.  Similarly, she was not ready to know some realities of the world, including the “sex sin” about which she had inquired.

Modern fathers should heed Mr. Tin Boom’s example in many ways, including the issues of music, specifically, and entertainment, generally.

A Mission Statement for Listening

As musician Derek Webb evolved musically, he became fond of another aphorism.  He said of his work as an artist, “I look at the world and tell you what I see.”  I’m attempting something similar with The Persistence of Song:  I listen to the world and tell you what I hear.

I hope that’s how you’ll interact with all music—whether it’s marketed as “Christian” or “secular.”  Listen critically, for the unexamined playlist is not worth hearing.

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Part one of two.

Everclear Forever Gone

Fresh from a summer Christian youth camp experience in the late 90s, I, teeming with resolve, set about the painful task of purging my music holdings of “secular music.”  Typically, my chief aim after such youth camps was to document daily Bible readings, record a consistent prayer life, or memorize a book of the Bible.

Yet, one summer, the inquisition of my CD collection was the mark of holiness on which I had set my legalistic efforts.  I do not recall the propositions that, at the time, ineluctably led me to this course of action.  I do, however, remember distinctly several other youth returning with similar ambitions.  Perhaps, for me, the dispossession of questionable music was more easily attainted than the goals I derived from other summer camp experiences.

Fortunately, I was no connoisseur of fine music in the late 90s.   Most of the items I discarded were hardly a sacrifice.  I only regret the loss of one album, So Much for the Afterglow, by Everclear.

Before you ridicule me, keep in mind that Everclear was an edgy choice for me in the late 90s.   Also, note that So Much for the Afterglow was released before the band completely abandoned its artistic cents sense for the money-making venture known as Songs from an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile.

Over the last decade, I have significantly, though slowly, revised my attitudes and beliefs toward music.  Several principles led to this gradual transformation.  These principles provide a conceptual framework for how we interact with the music so easily accessible in our culture.

[Excursus:  The Economic Explanation for Song Quality

For the moment, I want to set aside aesthetic concerns.  A common critique of contemporary Christian music focuses on the quality of the music.  Perhaps, some would take this critique as a reason for listening to secular music.  I find this approach inconsistent.  The state of music on CCM stations and popular “secular” radio stations is quite similar; neither are peddlers of fine art.  In both cases, Christian and secular, quality music can be found.  Find your local public radio music station, and you’ll find some quality non-Christian music.

Locating comparable quality Christian music will require a little more effort.  And the primary reason is economic.  Larger markets and larger niches demand more products, and this demand creates a competitive condition well-suited for good products.  For instance, a handful of large, successful burger-based fast food restaurants dot the landscape of cities throughout the US; yet, only one Tex-Mex chain has as noticeable of a presence.   To mix the metaphors, more people are ordering Biebers with cheese than soft tobyMac supremes.]

1.  No suitable definition exists for the concept “Christian music.” 

Singer-songwriter Derek Webb made much of the quip, “Christ didn’t die for a song.”  Webb’s sarcastic saw exposes a serious problem with the term “Christian music.”  I won’t belabor the point here—I’ve spilt much blink, roughly 1500 words, on this already—but no sensible or useful definition exists for what we often call “Christian music.”  For the term to gain any technical credibility, we have to posit a definition that encompasses a larger sample of work now considered “secular” or a definition that excludes much of what we tolerate as “Christian music.”  The popular “Christian” and “secular” distinction is one of convenience and commerce.

2.  Moral discernment is of greater value than moral demarcation. 

The distinction between “Christian” and “non-Christian” music appeals to our cut-and-dry sentiment.  If we can demarcate these albums as “Christian,” then, obviously, they are suitable for listening.  If we can demarcate those albums as “non-Christian,” then we can avoid them.

Fascinatingly, the Apostle Paul avoids this sort of reductionism when he discusses some of the issues of conscience in first century Christianity.  For instance, Paul addresses the issue of food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8), which he, perhaps surprisingly, does not forbid Christians to eat.  The principle he impresses upon God’s people is to eat these foods wisely, not flaunting Christian liberty so as to tempt other Christians who have been redeemed from paganism.  Similarly, the one who abstains is not to despise the one who partakes.

Music is a modern-day issue to which we can apply Paul’s teachings.  We should not summarily dismiss “non-Christian” music as songs offered to idols.  Rather, we listen discerningly, and we never impinge upon others music that violates their conscience or stirs them up to sin.

Similarly, we cannot blindly accept all forms of music marketed as “Christian” as—pardon the clichéd expression—God’s honest truth.  How often have we heard “Christian” music carelessly describe God as in need of us?  (The answer is too often.)  We must be discerning, even as we listen to positive, upbeat, encouraging music.

In part two of this series, I will discuss how music helps us gauge the worldview of our culture.  We will also see how non-Christian music provides examples and illustrations that help us comprehend our faith.

As part of the Music for the March series, I’m featuring collections of Amazon MP3 albums.  Purchase any MP3 album between now and September 23rd, and I’ll donate ALL of my Amazon Affiliate commission (which is 10% of the album cost, up to $1.50) to March of Dimes.  You can follow my fundraising efforts (and make other contributions) here.

This collection focuses on me, more specifically, my favorite albums.  Click any of the links below to contribute to March of Dimes by purchasing the album. 

The Strokes, Is This It.  This album was a revolution for my playlist.  I didn’t listen to The Strokes, when they debuted during my high school career, and, thus, I robbed myself of much happiness.  Here’s what makes the album so great for me.  The album’s most popular songs–“Someday” and “Last Nite”–are good songs, but are nowhere near the best songs on the album.  I’m not alone, here; Rolling Stone magazine named Is This It the second best album of the decade (2000-2009). 

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Derek Webb, I See Things Upside DownISTUD is Webb at his best:  musically and lyrically.  It was Webb’s second solo album and had an experimental rock sound.  I must confess some nostalgia with this choice.  When ISTUD came in the mail (yes back then, most humans still ordered physical copies of music), it hijacked my attention, going with me straight to my scheduled college German lab.  Later, I was the promoter for a Webb concert at my university.  Those were the good ole days.  The album also features my favorite song, “Reputation.”     

______________

Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.  The only negative thing I can say about this album is its lame title.  To Phoenix’s credit, they revolutionized their sound for this album, and for moments, Phoenix sounds less like a band, a more like alternative rock composers.  Phoenix’s unlikely success in 2009—culminating with a Grammy award for alternative rock album of the year—initiated the francophone momentum that, a year later, landed Arcade Fire the Grammy award for album of the year.      

 ______________

Andy Davis, Thinks of Her.  This is a wonderful, unfairly unheralded, album.  Davis’ follow-up album Let the Woman is worth your while, as well. 

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Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker.  A college roommate helped me to distinguish between Ryan Adams and Bryan Adams and greatly improved my quality of life.  Heartbreaker is an artful amalgam of folk, blues, and rock.  For Adams, it’s been a burdensome breakthrough album, one to which all of his others albums have been compared; yet, it’s better to peak early than never to peak at all.

Jon Bon Jovi elicited controversy this week by claiming that Apple founder, Steve Jobs, is “personally responsible for killing the music business.”

The virtual response to Bon Jovi has been almost unanimously vitriolic.  My favorite response has come from musician Derek Webb:  “Henry Ford is personally responsible for killing the horse industry.” 

Obviously, Bon Jovi overstated his case–isn’t that the best way to get press, anyway?–but the iPhenomenon has, in fact, changed how music is produced and consumed.

Until a few months ago, I was sympathetic with Bon Jovi.  The MP3 model of music business exalted the single, over the album, as the primary artistic expression of musicians.  With MP3 sales, one dominant single is a sufficient reward for record labels’ investment in production and marketing.

But there are signs that the iPhenomenon has helped the music industry.  Indie music is no longer indie.  Arcade Fire won Album of the Year at 2011 Grammy awards.  The Civil Wars most recent album climbed to the top of iTunes album sales list.  Both acts deserved these honors, but without digital sales and social media, only indie connoisseurs would know these great musicians.   

We are too quick to make the medium the enemy.  Tapes and CDs didn’t have the rich sound of vinyl.  Now MP3 albums have robbed consumers of album covers and lyric booklets.  Shoot the messenger.

The Buggles claimed that “Video Killed the Radio Star.”  Bon Jovi claimed that the iPhenomenon killed the music business.  But the song, however we access it, persists.  Andy Dufresne–who spent two weeks in solitary confinement for blaring opera over Shawshank’s PA system–was right; no one can take music from us.

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